Finnish Suburbs Await Inspiring Retrofits

Last weekend I got invited to a couple’s house in Herttoniemi, one of Helsinki’s first suburbs, to experience the loud hum of a six-lane highway that runs just behind their house and is terrorizing their suburban dream (yes, it is loud). The city apparently hasn’t been interested in setting up a barrier to reduce noise despite it has expanded the road over the years. Furthermore, the area’s new infill development plan is suggesting too many new buildings to their neighborhood and right in their backyard too. The couple said they were proud Not-In-My-Backyard folk and don’t want changes to their surroundings. It seemed to be yet another NIMBY case.

Suburban expansion side-effects. What once was a quiet and leafy site, now is characterized by the Metro and six lanes of traffic next door.
Suburban expansion side effects. What once was a quiet and leafy site, now is characterized by the metro line and six lanes of traffic next door.

However and to my surprise, one of the key reasons they were against the new development was that they were afraid of ugly new buildings that would ruin the harmony of the 1950s neighborhood. “During the past decades, there has been little to be cheerful about in our cities’ development”, the man who invited me said. The couple could even accept getting new neighbors if some effort was put in getting it done right. Moreover, they told me they would actually be happy to see the highway behind their house transformed into an urban boulevard. The noise barrier would just be needed until those visions become a reality.

A "cheerful" example of urban development from the past decades. This spot is in Malmi.
A “cheerful” example of urban development from the past decades. This spot is in Malmi.

These concerns of theirs are right at the core of today’s biggest planning problem in Finland. In growing cities across the country we need to stop sprawling out and start growing inwards due to well-documented environmental and economic reasons. But because we suck at building cities, many people get wary about new development and object the proposals or just find the new stuff little more exciting than what’s been repeated for far too long. The best scenario would probably be to start proving these guys wrong and give hope of a more “cheerful” future.

Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson do just this in their book Retrofitting Suburbia and have collected examples of successful retrofits across North America. The concept points to transforming conventional suburban features into more urban ones. In Ellen’s TED talk, she explains that these have been done on “underperforming asphalt” that older suburbs are often characterized by. This means that as cities have sprawled out over the years, the first suburban developments are now actually very central locations and thus increasingly attractive locations for newer citizens and property developers. Dunham-Jones illustrates that by adding “pockets of walkability on underperforming sites” and “transforming transport corridors”, cities have been able to add choices for new generations that seek increasingly more urban lifestyles and give suburban locales the “downtowns they never had”. Dunham-Jones also notes that successful outcomes only come if we demand better quality built environments and reject “instant architecture”. This is critical because contrary to popular belief within the building & construction industry, people can’t be fooled by trying to make “faux places”.

Finnish suburbs are obviously not directly comparable to the North American retrofit contexts, but the general idea of Retrofitting Suburbia is very transferable and timely.

Especially in two ways.

Firstly, new homes are needed desperately in growing cities and we can’t build new suburban rings or developments anymore. If we look at Helsinki for example, just about everything built during the past 60 years has been characterized by suburban development. To the extent that we now have independent suburban cities surrounding Helsinki that statistically are Finland’s second and fourth most inhabited municipalities. For years and years, we’ve left many of the early suburbs relatively untouched and just kept on leapfrogging a bit further to build new ones instead trying to funnel growth into already built-up areas.

But now in the 21st century we’ve arrived at a point where this is no longer possible because it is getting more difficult to justify suburban expansion and within Helsinki’s jurisdiction we’ve simply ran out of locations where to leapfrog to. We simply have to get used to welcoming new neighbors in older and newer suburbs because according to estimates, the metropolitan region population is expected to hit two million inhabitants by 2050. That’s almost seven times as many people as what was considered the urban area of Helsinki before the beginning of the suburban expansion.

Secondly, I think the retrofit examples and approach by Dunham-Jones are great because it’s very healthy for us Finns to begin emphasizing more on the real world when developing our suburbs. The reason I say this is that the main model for Finnish suburbs is the well-known Tapiola model, which in essence is a more nature-oriented interpretation of the modernist neighborhood unit concept.

Its origins like elsewhere in global suburbia are in certain hostility towards the urban, which has resulted in a very “open” urban landscape that’s spatially “loose”. The Finnish suburban landscape obviously is often way denser than the parking plateaus, dead malls and such that you might meet in America, but still all too often lacks the kind of structure that would make them act as the kind of urban living rooms that people increasingly want.

In addition, we in Finland have always incorporated the social goals of the Nordic welfare state into this modern suburban pattern of living. And this social-science approach to living has gotten strongly transferred to countless programs, projects, initiatives, studies and institutions dealing with the development and state of Finnish suburbia (and cities more broadly, too) ever since. At the cost of critically examining what it is that we’re actually building in our ‘burbs.

For example, the Housing Finance and Development Centre of Finland, ARA, implements the national Development Program for Residential Areas (i.e. suburbs) which seeks to “prevent segregation in residential areas and further their vitality“. The development themes are many and dominantly focus on issues such as participation, providing affordable housing, saving local services, reversing recently increased segregation trends, increasing comfort & safety, and the proliferation of smart technologies.

Moreover, one of the most important cures for stopping decline that social scientists and public administrators always remind us about is to create a better reputation for those particular suburbs. If the media and people generally would understand to stop referring to certain locales as undesirable, the problem will supposedly solve itself.

I'm not sure if this plaza in Mellunmäki is going to get any nicer just by saying that it is.
I’m not sure if this plaza in Mellunmäki is going to get any nicer just by saying that it is.

These goals are naturally very important, but what is too often forgotten is linking them with their spatial context. Among all of ARA’s goals, there is only one sentence referring to the “look” of residential areas by suggesting that they “are also cultural environments whose aesthetic character, diversity and temporal stratification are important factors in creating comfort and establishing an area’s identity“. The architecture and spatial organization of buildings, streets and public spaces just cannot be generalized out of the picture when we discuss cities and suburbs alike. Larry R. Ford writes in his book Cities and Buildings – Skyscrapers, Skid Rows and Suburbs that: “In an architectural urban geography, both the buildings themselves and the imagery and ideology surrounding them create their own reality, a reality that is altered only with difficulty.

In simple terms, the best brainwash to transform unpopular suburban areas into attractive locations is to add nice & desirable urban fabric into them. Unfortunately, most suburban infill projects that are treated as best practice today do little to add anything to their neighborhoods apart from more apartments. A layered urban form on the other hand usually makes places interesting and Finnish suburbs are no exception. Similar to elsewhere in the Western world where increasingly urban lifestyles are steering towards new development patterns, also our demographic, socioeconomic, and ethnic characteristics have changed tremendously since the mid-20th century and the way we build cities should also reflect these shifts.

So where should we start with our suburban retrofits? Unlike North America, in the Helsinki capital region we luckily have some very effective transit corridors in place. The areas close to metro and commuter railway stations offer the best potential to get a positive redevelopment scheme underway. Also just as the city has recently already loudly envisioned, the highways cutting through the city are great options to be retrofitted with an added benefit of being able to connect neighborhoods together.

This space could also be much more than just carry vehicles. Picture source: Wikimedia Commons.
This space could also be much more than just an artery to carry vehicles. Picture source: Wikimedia Commons.

I went on a tour around different suburban nodes to showcase you examples of “underperforming” suburban space we have around our suburban railway stations. I want to illustrate that there is huge potential to add pieces of urban fabric very close to the stations. By doing so, we could diversify the suburban nodes tremendously and open them up for a more broad clientage on the housing market. Making interventions in these kind of places is also not taking away any of the recreational possibilities people appreciate around suburbia. It’s just adding more possibilities.

I visited two slightly different types of suburbs: the metro suburbs and the railway suburbs. The first kind are in East Helsinki and as the name suggests, connected to the center and each other by the Helsinki Metro. These areas are built quite openly and comprehensively after the Tapiola model. Compared to the characteristics of say the classic American single-family home suburbs, the key differences are that we’ve built apartment buildings and have lots of forest as green buffer zones. Otherwise the pattern is exactly the same, characterized by segregated land-uses and separate traffic zones.

The commuter railway suburb type differs from the metro suburb in the sense that these areas generally started to form before modernism and still have some of that street pattern left. Even though older buildings have mostly been replaced with modernist ones. Later development has followed the functionalist principles but often these areas have a denser feel to them thanks to their past.

In these examples, the features that offer most retrofit potential are unnecessarily wide and separated traffic zones, random patches of green buffer zones, and surface parking lots. Sometimes also existing buildings close to the station areas could be enlarged and/or transformed to offer more uses and apartments. In some places also the parking lots between the buildings could be turned into parks while relocating the cars to street-side parking spots to make the environment nicer.

These are just some ideas and I hope both residents and professionals come up with more possibilities in the future. In any case, let’s focus on making memorable places while retrofitting our suburban landscapes. With cheerless “instant architecture” everyone loses.


11 responses to “Finnish Suburbs Await Inspiring Retrofits”

    1. Timo H. Avatar

      Thanks Maffie! I’ll get right to studying the Melbourne case 🙂

  1. Ellen Dunham-Jones Avatar

    Thanks for this post Timo. I’m delighted to learn that June’s and my work documenting North American examples resonates in Finland. We’d love to include some Finnish suburban retrofits in our next book!

    1. Timo H. Avatar

      That would be great! Let’s hope we’ll manage to do successful ones by then.

  2. Tim van de Laar (@Timvdlaar) Avatar

    Wow, your photos show a huge asphalt jungle, this changes my whole perspective of Helsinki as green metropolis.

    Good that you talked to some of the inhabitants in Suburbia and ask them for their desires. The book ‘The happy city’ from Sam Sullivan states that people living in car-dominated suburbs are proven to be less happy than people living in walkable city neighbourhoods. Planners should provide these suburban inhabitants with visions of how their neighbourhood could look like, if parking lots make place for squares and highways are turned into dense city streets.

    1. Mikko H Avatar

      This time of the year pretty much any place in Finland will look very bleak, good architecture or bad. The snow is gone (this winter there was precious little of it anyway), all the debris and dust revealed, and the green leaves are not out yet. You can try to take a look at some of the photographed locations in Google StreetView photos, most of which have been taken on pretty nice days in Helsinki. The places mentioned in the blog post look quite different.

      For example, this is the small square in Mellunmäki. There’s a plan to redevelop the old shopping center and adjacent blocks.

      Here’s the Kontula shopping center and metro station, also to be extensively redeveloped.

    2. Timo H. Avatar

      Thanks for your comment, Tim! “Happy City” is next on my reading list, so maybe soon also inspiration from there will get transferred to this blog 🙂

  3. neil21 (@neil21) Avatar

    Yes! As a Briton (who learned all his urbanism in the NthAm context, after transplanting to Vancouver) I’ve been so frustrated by the Garden Cities talk, and little apparent discussion on activating and urbanising 1950s/60s/70s wastelands. The “Create Streets” movement is the closest I’ve seen.

    I’ve started work on a tool to create sprawl repair plans, by connecting up ‘outdoor rooms’. It’s a clunky work in progress, but here are some posts that show the idea I’ll email you a link to the demo page we currently have.

    1. Timo H. Avatar

      Thanks for the link Neil! Seems very interesting indeed.

  4. Miettinen Maria Avatar
    Miettinen Maria

    Auntie Maria from Herttoniemi wants to thank you for a very good blog!

    Could you please write something about colour?

    And the size of everything?

    1. Timo H. Avatar

      Thanks Auntie Maria! The large scale of everything is a good topic to discuss, I’ll put my thinking hat on to get some inspiration. Thanks!

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